In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is libido.
I’m guessing everyone already knows what libido (or sex drive) is on a surface level, but I was curious to find out what lies beneath the surface, and it turns out that it’s influenced by a combination of psychological, physiological, and social factors.
The role of hormones
Biologically, the libido is fuelled by the action of dopamine and the sex hormones testosterone and estrogen in the nucleus accumbens, the brain’s pleasure centre. There are a number of other hormones and neurotransmitters involved, including progesterone, oxytocin, serotonin, norepinephrine, and acetylcholine.
In females, libido may fluctuate throughout the monthly cycles as a result of changes in the levels of estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone (yes, females do produce some testosterone, just like males produce some estrogen).
The term libido was first popularized by Sigmund Freud, who described it as “the energy, regarded as a quantitative magnitude… of those instincts which have to do with all that may be comprised under the word ‘love’.” He considered it to be an innate instinct, much like hunger, that is part of the id.
According to Carl Jung, the libido “denotes a desire or impulse which is unchecked by any kind of authority, moral or otherwise. Libido is appetite in its natural state. From the genetic point of view it is bodily needs like hunger, thirst, sleep, and sex, and emotional states or affects, which constitute the essence of libido.”
Low libido and psychiatry
Diminished sex drive can occur as a result of mental illness, including depression and PTSD. Psychiatric medications can also decrease libido, making it a bit of a chicken-or-egg scenario.
The DSM-5 includes hypoactive sexual desire disorder as a diagnosis; it involves a lack of sex drive that causes clinically significant distress. It’s a bit of a controversial disorder because simply having a low sex drive is not necessarily pathological. Then you have asexuality as a sexual orientation, which involves a lack of sexual attraction to others, which may overlap with low libido but isn’t the same thing.
Erectile dysfunction drugs like Viagra don’t work by promoting arousal. Instead, they promote vasodilation to allow the rush of blood that produces an erection. The signal still needs to come from the brain to get it up; without that, Viagra isn’t going to do much.
I haven’t had sex for several years. I’ve got a low sex drive that masturbation takes care of just fine. My sex drive was stronger when I was younger, but depression has deflated that. Mostly now I just don’t care. If I never have sex again I’d be fine with that.
Has your libido changed over time or due to illness?
Source: Wikipedia: Libido
The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.